Kuching in History

Malay Kampongs of Kuching

I picked up a great little book, a 50-year-old report done by two peninsular Malays as an undergraduate honors project. The reprinting, produced by UNIMAS, is titled “Life in the Malay Kampongs of Kuching, Fifty Years Ago”. It’s a real gem. The students were geographers, and so payed special attention to the landscape of the Malay north bank. They did dabble in some social observation as well:

Children and a few adults were noted, however, who although calling themselves ‘Malay’ were clearly wholly or partly Chinese physically. The adoption by Malay families of Chinese children, particularly girls, is a common practice, even among Malays with children of their own. The adopted child receives no invidious treatment, is accepted without qualification, and is invariably Muslim. Exactly why such adoption is so common it is difficult to decide satisfactorily on the basis of our short period of work in these kampongs. The only widely expressed and openly accepted reason is the desire of those possessing no children at all to own them or of those families in which the children are all boys to possess a girl. This certainly fits in well with the practice of disposing of the girls rather than the boys by Chinese who feel that their economic position does not warrant the keeping of an extra girl. There is also the fear by Malay families in which all the children are boys, that when the sons follow the practice among the Malays of living with their in-laws after marriage, the parents will be deprived of their sons who are income earners and capable of looking after them when they are old or sick. A daughter means a potential son-in-law in one’s house.

However, Chinese baby girls are taken by some Malay families even though they already possess several children, including girls. The reasons for this kind of adoption are certainly partly explicable in term of differences between Chinese and Malay economic philosophies. Some reasons, never expressed however by the Malay himself, may be unpopular if openly admitted although generally and tacitly held. The light colouring and more delicate features of the Chinese girls are, we think, factors of some importance in many cases, making the child probably more marriageable in a community with more females than males, and thereby incidentally attracting a son-in-law into the house. In one house in a downstream Kampong a large number of people were found to be visiting the household to see a small baby Chinese girl who had just been purchased for $50 by the Malays. The villagers certainly appeared to be most interested in whether the colouring and general features of the child made it a good bargain.

My in-laws from west Malaysia have adopted Chinese girls in our family tree as well, so this was not limited just to Kuching, though it seems to have been more common here. Has this resulted in closer relations between the Chinese donor families and the adopting families? I’d be curious to know. In our own family, the Chinese relatives still show up for weddings and other major gatherings. At the same time, I’ve been told our late grandmother was rather resentful for having been given away as an infant. Anyway, perhaps due to the general rise in prosperity, I don’t think this practice is happening more today.



I just got back from a lovely holiday at the Santubong Family Resort. It was my first real excursion out of Kuching since I got here. We took the chance to go, since Monday and Tuesday were State holidays in honor of Gawai Day.

Gawai Day is the biggest holiday of the year for the native tribes. Nobody I asked seemed to know exactly what was involved in the holiday though, aside from people returning to their villages to be with their families. The holiday calendar here has a great deal of variety in it from state to state, depending on which ethnic groups are more numerous. Sabah and Sarawak have Good Friday off due to all the Christians, Sarawak has Gawai Day, Perak and Penang have Thaipussam for all the Tamils. Each state with a monarchy also has a holiday for the birthday of the King. It all evens out in the end, it seems. At my last job in the states, employees had an official “floating holiday” that they could use to observe whatever holiday of theirs wasn’t honored by the calendar. That was pretty good, though I could use at least one more of those. I’ve been told that Sri Lanka wins for having the most national holidays a year. Sri Lanka observes all the high Hindu Holidays, both Eids and Mawlid Nabi, and all the Buddhist holidays, including every full moon! That’s a gauranteed holiday once a month. Now who’s going to complain about that?

Santubong was great. From our balcony we could see Mt. Santubong and the South China Sea. A ten-minute walk led to a gorgeous sandy beach. The sea was as warm as bath water, and gentle. The sun is too fierce to go in the middle of the day, but morning and late afternoon is great. The kids loved it, especially after I assured my five-year old that there were no crocodiles. All the crocodiles are over in the Sarawak River, but that’s a topic for another post. As a muslim, it’s the little things that made the trip so pleasant. Nobody complains if you jump in the pool with shirt and pants on (issue discussed here). Every hotel room has the direction of prayer marked in a corner of the ceiling. Forgot your prayer rug? No problem, housekeeping has complimentary ones for you. The complimentary breakfast buffet? Halal corned beef. Man, I haven’t had corned beef in ages! Of course, the hotel is a little pricey to make a regular thing out of it. But it turns out, Kuching is only about a half an hour drive from the sea, easily close enough for a day trip. Now I just have to find a public beach.

Mawlid Parade

12 Rabi’ul Awwal, the day our beloved Prophet Muhammad (saws) was born, is a national holiday in Malaysia as it is in every muslim country on earth except one. In the city of Kuching, Sarawak, to where I had just moved from America, there was to be a large parade that morning as there is every year. It was held at the Padang Merdeka or Independence Square, the parade ground in the heart of Kuching’s historic district. Padang Merdeka is ringed by huge spreading shade trees that are reminiscent of our American Elms. A stage had been erected to allow government ministers to speak to the crowds.

My son and I arrived too early, and so we had to stand for a good deal of speechifying from the assembled dignitaries. Although politicians’ speeches are much the same the world over, it was nonetheless impressive to see them gather at such an occasion to praise Allah’s Praised One. Not catching much of the speech, we wandered through the crowd. All the contingents preparing to march stood with their banners and decorations. Many were splendidly dressed in loud colorful matching uniforms of pinks, reds, blues, and greens. Many gentlemen were wearing songkit, a fancy sarong woven with gold or silver threads that is worn over Baju Melayu on formal occasions. So many different patterns were on display! My son caught sight of a neighborhood friend and was soon weaving in and out of the colorful throngs, giving chase to his friends.

The day started to drizzle as the speeches ended and the various contingents from the public schools, villages, neighborhood mosques and government offices began to march. Soon the air was filled with sounds of praise for RasulAllah. The gathering gloom of rainclouds was enlivened by the colorful uniforms, and the nasheed and salawat sung out accompanied by kompang. The kompang is a hand drum about the size of a tambourine. It is always played as a group, with one half playing half the rhythm, the other half, the other. The full rhythm is heard as one when played well in unison. The love and devotion of the crowd was evident as they marched on, singing and drumming even as the rains thickened. Although our city is not a big one, I had the distinct feeling while standing there that, just as in salat, I was joining together with our muslim brothers and sisters around the world to please Allah (swt). Does not Allah (swt) say, “Verily, Allah and His angels are sending prayers upon the Prophet; O you who believe, send prayers upon him and blessings of peace.”

Soon it began to pour, and, stowing my camera, my son and I dashed back to our parking garage. From the top level of the garage, we could see that the paraders had stuck to their route despite the downpour, and we soon heard them approaching the end of the route far below.

Following the parade, many people would retire back to more private gatherings in people’s homes, where the evening would be spent commemorating Prophet Muhammad’s life through recitation of the Mawlid Diba’i or the Mawlid Barzanji, interspersed with nasheed. We carry love for the Prophet, the Best of Creation, in our hearts throughout the year. How fitting it is to gather together and reaffirm our love publicly at every possible opportunity, not least on the blessed day of his birth!

“Khayral barriyah, nathrah illayah/

Ma anta illa kanzul attiyah”

[Revised and Updated, 17/2/2007]

Rabi’ al-Awwal

We are now in the first week of the blessed month of Rabi’ al-Awwal, the month that Allah Almighty sent the Beloved, Our Master Muhammad , the Best of Creation, the Seal of the Prophets. His birth, or Mawlid, is celebrated on the 12th of Rabi’ al-Awwal, and is an official holiday in every muslim country in the world, with one exception. Stay tuned for pictures from the celebration here in Kuching next week.

[Update: Within a half hour of posting, I recieved an email containing a short condemnation of Mawlid by Shaykh Al-Munajjad. I appreciate the brother for visiting the site and taking the time to write, but I was unimpressed with the fatwa. It begins by saying that the practive is bid’a, innovation, and ends with that ever-so-abused hadith that every new thing is an innovation and every innovation is in the fire, and there is not much in between. That is the one-two punch that the wahhabis have used to condemn countless good deeds, but it is soundly refuted here by the Imam Ahmed Raza Academy. Other notable shuyukh endorsing the celebration of mawlid in their fatwas are Sh. Yusuf Qardawi, Imam Ibn Kathir, and Imam As-Suyuti. There is even more, including the great merits of the Mawlid, at Mawlid.net. The site has Malay and Indonesian translations available.]

Umm il-Mu’mineen

Here is an image of the mosque qubbah and grave of Sayyidatina Khadija, the Mother of the Muslims, the First Believer. When the Prophet received the first revelation from Archangel Gabriel in the cave, he was overwhelmed and terrified by it. He fled the cave to his home, shivering and trembling. It was Sayyidatina Khadija who comforted him and covered him with a blanket. It was she who assured him he was not mad or possessed, and she was the first to embrace Islam.

The mosque qubbah and her grave stood in Mecca, until they were demolished by the Saudi regime in 1343 AH, under the direction of the followers of Ibn Abdul Wahhab. May Allah have mercy on us.

Thanks to Lan for the image.

Bup Kudus


A religious controversy came and went here in Sarawak before I even heard about it. The Bup Kudus, the translation of the Holy Bible into the Iban language, was banned two weeks ago, and dis-banned today. The Sarawak Tribune I picked up was so information-poor, I could not discern from the article why they banned it, when they banned it, or why they had lifted the ban. I found a partial explanation here:

The secretary-general of the Malaysia National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, the Rev. Wong Kim Kong, said from Kuala Lumpur there had for some time been difficulties over the fact that some words used in Islam were also used in Christian publications.

Some Muslim leaders thought this could perplex Muslims who picked up such books.

Among the words that cause concern is “Allah.” It’s the word Muslims use for the deity they worship, but the Arabic word pre-dated Islam and is also used by Christian Arabs when referring to God – despite the considerable differences in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic conceptions of God.

The Iban translation of the Bible uses the term “Allah Taala” for God, while the other banned Christian books, in Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia, also use “Allah” for God.

This is thought likely to be one of the problem areas for the Home Ministry.

I think the Home Ministry made the right move by lifting the ban. But the language issue is an interesting one. Allah is used interchangeably with Tuhan to mean God in Bahasa Malaysia, but Tuhan is the original Malay word. When my son learns the meaning of an Arabic dua in school, Allahumma (Oh God) is still translated as Ya Tuhan. I don’t speak any Iban at all, but I would be very surprised if Allah is the original or preferred word for God, what to speak of Allah Taala (Almighty God), which is rarely heard even among Malays outside of Islamic religious sermons. So why would the Bup Kudus translators go with that translation? It is reminiscent, as Anak_Alam pointed out, of the uproar over Arabic Bibles that began with the Bismillah (that’s it at the top of the page), a distinctly Islamic invocation whether it has an intelligible meaning to non-muslim Arabs or not. Well, now that it is lawful again, I’ll have to go pick up my own copy of the Bup. I’ve still got my childhood copy of the Bible (KJV), so I should be able to learn a bit of Iban with them side by side.

[Update: The first thing that popped into my head when I saw the words Bup Kudus was the Holy Piby, the “Black Man’s Bible” that Rastafarianism is built on. Rather a tangent, I know, but that’s what the web does best. ]


I’m vibing again off of Ideofact’s last post, where he mentions the particular Arabian region of Najd, the homeland of Ibn Abdul Wahhab. It reminded me of an article I read a while back at Masud Ahmed Khan’s excellent website. Written by Karim Fenari, it describes the narrations of the Holy Prophet regarding that region:

Among the best-known of these hadiths is the relation of Imam al-Bukhari in which Ibn Umar said: ‘The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) mentioned: “O Allah, give us baraka in our Syria, O Allah, give us baraka in our Yemen.” They said: “And in our Najd?” and he said: “O Allah, give us baraka in our Syria, O Allah, give us baraka in our Yemen.” They said: “And in our Najd?” and I believe that he said the third time: “In that place are earthquakes, and seditions, and in that place shall rise the devil’s horn [qarn al-shaytan].”’This hadith is clearly unpalatable to the Najdites themselves, some of whom to this day strive to persuade Muslims from more reputable districts that the hadith does not mean what it clearly says.

The article continues on describing the numerous hadiths about Najd and about the tribe of Tamim, from which Ibn Abdul Wahhab descends:

An attribute recurrently ascribed to the Tamimites in the hadith literature is that of misplaced zeal. When they finally enter Islam, they are associated with a fanatical form of piety that demands simple and rigid adherence, rather than understanding; and which frequently defies the established authorities of the religion. Imam Muslim records a narration from Abdallah ibn Shaqiq which runs: ‘Ibn Abbas once preached to us after the asr prayer, until the sun set and the stars appeared, and people began to say: “The prayer! The prayer!” A man of the Banu Tamim came up to him and said, constantly and insistently: “The prayer! The prayer!” And Ibn Abbas replied: “Are you teaching me the sunna, you wretch?”’ (Muslim, Salat al-Musafirin, 6.)

Ouch! The rest of the article is also very good, as are the other articles by Fenari and others in that section. I would particularly recommend The Wahhabi Who Loved Beauty.

Wahhabism: Ideology of Discontent

Radio Free Europe has a very interesting article by Robert Bruce Ware on the repudiation of wahhabism in Daghestan, the province neighboring Chechnya. The article shows that muslims in Daghestan are content to remain part of the Russian Federation, despite what bad blood may remain from the past, since they are free to practice their religion and Russia is providing them with economic assistance. The author conducted a survey of a thousand daghestanis. Here are the highlights:

Since the 1999 fighting [quick synopsis here], Wahhabism has received only marginal support. In a survey of 1,001 respondents conducted by this author throughout Daghestan in March and April of 2000, 9.1 percent agreed that “Wahhabis are Muslims, not extremists,” while 77 percent said that “Wahhabis are extremists hiding behind a religious facade.”

Remarkably, data indicate that the central determining factor in a respondent’s evaluation of Wahhabism is his or her view concerning Daghestan’s relation with the federation. Those Daghestanis who want Daghestan to have closer relations with Russia are 2.7 times more likely to see Wahhabis as extremists than are those who long for a more independent Daghestan. By the same token, those Daghestanis who desire to maintain the status quo are 2.6 times more likely to see Wahhabis as extremists than their fellow citizens who favor greater independence. In addition, those less inclined to view Russia as a threat to Daghestan are 1.7 times as likely to see Wahhabis as extremists as those who consider Russia a very serious threat to Daghestan.

In short, anti-Wahhabism, is positively correlated with pro-Russian attitudes. Since support for Wahhabism correlates with negative attitudes toward Russia, and since Daghestani attitudes toward Russia, as measured by the survey, are consistently positive, it is not surprising that attitudes toward Wahhabism are overwhelmingly negative. The survey showed that most Daghestanis strongly identify with Daghestan and with Russia and would place their trust in federal officials in the case of an acute crisis. Moscow subsidizes 80 percent of Daghestan’s budget, and most Daghestanis recognize that they cannot make it on their own. In contrast with some of its regional neighbors, Daghestan’s multicultural heritage has encouraged attitudes of pragmatism and moderation among its citizens.

Survey results also show that Wahhabism appeals more to men than women, more to rural than urban residents, and more to the young than to the old — thereby supporting anecdotal observations that Wahhabism holds particular appeal to young men from the villages.

Wahhabism is the ideology of discontent. A study just waiting to be conducted is to compare affilliation with wahhabism to lack of religious upbringing [outside of the gulf, of course]. My own observation is that wahhabism appeals more to those who were irreligious in their youth and are then “converted”, and those who come from irreligious households, where it plays into that perennial youthful vice of condemning your elders. It’s hard to imagine the appeal of a creed that says the last thousand years of Islamic practice are corrupt to anyone with respect for the piety of their forefathers.

Thanks to C.R. for the link.

[Previous post on Chechnya]


Chechnya is back in the news with the hostage-taking crisis in Moscow. Chechnya falls off the front page so fast, it’s hard to remember what exactly has been going on there all this time. Alt.Muslim featured the crisis on their front page, with a number of good links. Bill Allison of Ideofact.com [who I’ve been reading quite I bit since I found Aziz of Unmedia.com referencing him] talks about his general sympathy for the Chechen people despite his suspicions that wahhabi activists will be at the heart of the recent terrorism. I don’t really want to turn into a political blog, but I can’t resist giving my synopsis on this one:

After the first Chechen war with the grace of Allah the Chechens won and established their independence with Aslan Maskhadov as their elected president. For three years, no country in the world would recognize Chechnya, not even Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, that was one of only two countries in the world to recognize the Taliban, and a longtime foe of the Russians!

Why is that?

In 1998, Aslan Maskhadov came to Washington DC. I heard him speak. He declared that Chechnya was a nation of Ahl as-Sunnah wa al-Jama’at, that they were a proud muslim people and they didn’t need anyone coming into their country to try to re-educate them about their religion. He declared that Chechnya would gladly take the help of any friend but that it had to come openly, without interfering with their way of life, their Deen. And he declared that Wahhabi interlopers would not be tolerated within the borders of Chechnya.

While the Saudis may not have recognized Chechen independence, they did give money. But it completely bypassed the Republic of Chechnya and its elected president Aslan Maskhadov, and straight into the hands of warlords like Khattab and Shamil Basayev. By 1999, Aslan Maskhadov had survived three assassination attempts.

And then, in 1999, while Chechnya was still ravaged by war, still unrebuilt, still unmended, Khattab, Basayev and their troops invaded Russia, occupying villages in Daghestan and declaring an Islamic state.
That was the start of the second Chechen war. If there is a clearer proof for the lunacy of the wahhabis, I don’t know what it is. Never mind theology even. Invading Russia? Nobody invades Russia.

Now the nephew of Arbi Barayev has done this. One of the articles Alt.Muslim links to has this to say:

However, Dzhafar Zufarov, an influential mufti in southern Russia, said that Barayev was paid to take over the theater and that the money may have come from sources in Saudi Arabia.

Increasingly, Chechen rebels have found a bulwark in Islam and a source of funding and political support in Arab nations, which helps explain the growing influence of outside Islamic groups in Chechnya.

A very interesting documentary movie looking at Chechnya between the wars from a military perspective is available from Combat Films. It’s called Immortal Fortress. I’ve seen the documentary. It is very evenhanded or even pro-Chechen, praising them for their incredible victory. They interview numerous key figures from the First War. Priceless footage includes Shamil Basayev reminiscing fondly about the virtues of communism. Now these same people at Combat Films who have seen the region firsthand and sympathized with the Chechen struggle have this to say:

Unfortunately, the question of Chechen independence and Russia’s sovereignty has been severely obscured by massive human rights abuses by both sides-turning the conflict into a highly polarized emotional battleground. During the inter-war period (1996-1999), dozens, even hundreds, of foreigners have been kidnapped in and around Chechnya. Ethnic neighbors like the Dagestanis have suffered the most at the hands of a vicious sub-culture in Chechnya bent on ransoming its victims. Americans, Poles, French, and British have also been captured, brutalized and even killed at the hands of rogue elements of Chechen society.
emphasis mine

Are these rogue elements, the attempted assassins of Maskhadov, the wahhabis, and the hostage-takers in Moscow one and the same, overlapping groups or separate elements? I guess I can’t say for sure. But I know how I feel.

More on Wahhabi proselytizing in the Caucasus.

More on the hostage crisis from an eyewitness.

President Maskhadov denounces the hostage taking.